I WAS eight when I first heard those four words – I am your father.
I’d gone to the aptly named Empire cinema in Widnes, which is now a car park and actually closed for the last time on – of all dates – May 4th 1983.
Back then though, I had gone with my dad to watch The Empire Strikes Back, buoyed with the boundless optimism of the first Star Wars film, expecting another thrilling adventure in a galaxy far, far away.
Walking out past the concession stand, on the plush patterned carpets, I remember seeing the cinema manager who looked like Vincent Price and was wearing a posh suit, as he always did. He was watching the young faces struggling to come to terms with what they had just seen, with the knowledge that sometimes the bad guys win, and that the world would never be the same again.
All from four words – I am your father.
The fact that moment continues to resonate even now is testament to the brilliance of the film. Under the measured and character led direction of Irvin Kershner, Empire built on the incredible success of the first film by undercutting all of the central tenets that made it so popular.
And Luke’s farm boy charm wins the day, with help from the Force? Not this time.
For everyone watching back in 1980 it was hard to watch as their heroes were cut down to size by an enemy as ruthless as it was powerful.
For me though, it was Luke Skywalker‘s fall that was hardest to take as he served as the audience’s avatar on screen – an ordinary boy, but thrust into an extra-ordinary adventure.
As a story arc, that is straight out of classic mythology, be it Greek or otherwise, with George Lucas utilising familiar themes and folk tale paradigms throughout Luke’s development.
Initially in Star Wars, Luke feels he is destined to be more than a simple farmer.
That wish is realised when his surrogate father figure – Obi Wan (another mythological figure, the kindly wizard) – tells him his father wasn’t a navigator on a spice freighter, but a Jedi Knight – a brave warrior and hot-shot pilot with the Force at his command.
Although that revelation is tempered by Obi Wan’s tale of his father’s murder at the hands of Darth Vader, it immediately positions Luke as a classic hero with a princess to rescue and a father to avenge.
What’s more, his subsequent decisions to join the Rebellion and then train to become a Jedi in Empire can be seen as Luke trying to live up to the achievements of this idealised but absent patriarch, getting to know and understand him better in the process.
That is not an easy task and as Empire develops we are given hints that Luke’s father’s fate is not as clear cut as it first appeared, most notably when Luke fights Darth Vader during his training on Dagobah. Although he defeats him, Luke’s own face is revealed when Vader’s mask breaks open.
What may have been a reference to the dark impulses in all of us is given shocking form when Vader defeats Luke for real at the film’s climax and then drops the bombshell – father and son are re-united after so long apart.
It is a shattering moment which turns everything Luke and the audience had taken for granted on its head.
Again Lucas is calling directly on classic myths, for instance Homer’s Odyssey, where Odysseus is reunited with his son Telemachus after 20 years away, as they kill the men trying to woo his wife, Penelope.
But that legend, as with so many things in Empire, is subverted and their reunion is not joyous, but horrific.
After all, Vader is the bad guy – a ruthless monster who tortures and chokes people for kicks. He froze Han Solo! And he’s Luke’s dad?!?
Sitting there with my jaw on the floor, I felt that like a dagger through the heart, so god knows what it must have felt like for Luke.
What is certain is that his tortured screams mark the destruction of his desire to live up to his father’s example, as his idealised inspiration transforms into his worst nightmare in an instant.
With his world completely pulled from beneath his feet, Luke then rejects his father’s calls for an alliance and instead steps into the void, his previous certainties now gone forever.
Whew – powerful, primal, raw stuff and probably the greatest WTF moment ever.
It also served to make Vader’s redemption and their eventual reconciliation in Return of the Jedi all the more powerful, as Vader rediscovers his humanity and removes his mask, transforming back into the father Luke had been searching for all along.
But it is the Empire moment that everyone remembers as one of the greatest in any film and which has been referenced throughout popular culture again and again because of that.
And on top of that it is now 30-years-old, all of which makes it a worthy entry into the great sci-fi moments list.
Come on in chaps, just mind the cape Darth and pick up Luke’s hand.
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